Winners, stragglers from Summer 2020 enrollment

Four-year public and private institutions remain steady, while community colleges and rural institutions see year-over-year declines
By: | September 1, 2020
Elijah Lovkoff/Getty Images

Four-year colleges and universities saw a surprising slight uptick in summer enrollment this year compared with last year, but other higher education institutions did not fare as well, according to recent data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Community colleges, rural colleges and universities, and for-profit schools struggled to reach the same numbers they posted in Summer 2019, affected in part by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their declines were mirrored in the drop-off of enrollment in certain key demographics as well, especially Black undergraduates and male undergrads.

“These data offer the first opportunity to grasp the full range of effects on students and institutions of the host of disruptions the nation has weathered this summer,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which noted that 7 million students were enrolled overall.

“The equity implications for higher education in the fall are becoming more clear: Many of those most affected by the pandemic also appear to be losing access to college classes, even at community colleges and rural institutions that have traditionally served them.”

In fact, the Clearinghouse noted the disparity in numbers between rural and urban enrollment. Both public and private four-year rural institutions dropped significantly in year-over-year summer numbers at more than 8%, and almost 5%, respectively. Meanwhile, “city schools” posted a 6% increase, and suburban colleges rose 3%.

The highs and lows

The Clearinghouse’s data painted a murky picture for colleges and universities looking to increase Black and male student enrollment. Black undergraduate enrollment dipped by 8%, while male enrollment dropped 5.2%. At the community college level, the numbers were worse – declines of 11% for Black students and 14% for male students. Though the number of women that enrolled did drop, it was less than 1%.

Even online institutions weren’t insulated from the fallout of the pandemic. Despite graduate enrollment increasing by 6%, undergrad numbers fell by 3%. For profits suffered the deepest decline at 7%.

On the flip side were some positive numbers from the Clearinghouse.

Four-year public universities posted a nominal but steady 3% increase, while four-year private universities scored a 4% rise in enrollment. The numbers were helped by those in the 18-20 age bracket, which improved 8% year over year, and high school dual enrollees, which rose 14%.

Hispanic undergraduate numbers also increased at all institutions except for community colleges. The Clearinghouse also noted that Hispanic graduate student enrollment improved the most of all racial/ethnic groups at 13%.

As colleges and universities continue to look forward with a close eye on the numbers, the Clearinghouse said it is providing updates through a series on its website called Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information. It includes year-over-year comparisons and early data before full enrollment is reported. The Clearinghouse also plans to launch a research report called COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress that will discuss student transfer, mobility, and progress in near-real-time.


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com